When games get gory

Do violent video games make kids mean? Some lawmakers think so, and they're stepping up efforts to ban sales to juveniles. Images: Hot-button games

A key sequence in "Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas" requires the player to steal a police SWAT team tank, machine gun rival gang members and incinerate employees of a rival crack dealer--all acts covered by the "Mature" rating prominently displayed on each copy of the video game.

That rating, however, hasn't stopped countless underage players from picking up virtual Uzis in the latest GTA installment, the top-selling video game of 2004. Advocacy groups say exposure to such material makes kids more aggressive and desensitizes them to real-world violence, an argument that's winning increasing support from state and local lawmakers looking to ban the sale of such games to minors.

The issue's become a political football, with lawmakers and advocacy groups arguing that the government must protect children if the game industry can't or won't. The debate only gets more confusing with publicity surrounding cases such as that of Devin Thompson, an Alabama teen who claims that a previous version of "" inspired him to kill three police officers when he was 16.


What's new:
The debate over whether violent video games influence kids' real-world behavior is getting increasing attention as more and more lawmakers seek to shield minors from the guts and gore.

Bottom line:
Are kids apt to act out the shooting and maiming they see in video games? If so, who bears ultimate responsibility for limiting minors' access--parents, game makers, the government, or all three?

More stories on video games

The families of two of the slain officers sued "Grand Theft Auto" publisher Take-Two Interactive Software and several other parties last week, claiming the game "trained and motivated" Thompson to pull the trigger. Thompson reportedly told police, "Life is a video game. You've got to die sometime," before he opened fire.

Legislatures in at least six states are considering new proposals that would make it a crime to sell mature games to children, despite the failure of previous legislation to pass judicial scrutiny. Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, a Democrat, lobbied for his version in a recent State of the State address, in which he equated violent games with pornography, liquor and cigarettes. "We shouldn't allow them (children) to go to stores and buy video games that teach them to do the very things we put people in jail for," he said. "Buying these games should be up to parents--not kids."

And San Francisco Assemblyman Leland Yee, also a Democrat, introduced a new bill in Sacramento last week that seeks to impose a fine of up to $1,000 on individuals who sells violent video games to anyone under 17 years of age.

Game publishers say they already have a ratings system that gives parents all the information they need while allowing game makers to exercise their free-speech rights.

"I have a 14-year-old son, and it's part of my job as a parent to find out what's in a certain movie or TV program or game," said Gail Markels, senior vice president and general counsel for game industry trade group Entertainment Software Association. "I don't need a law being passed that mandates that."

Thompson, the teen who inspired the lawsuit against Take-Two, got hold of "Grand Theft Auto" well before the recommended age of 17 prominently displayed on the game as part of a ratings system the game industry set up in 1994 to address concerns about increasingly realistic depictions of violence and other objectionable content in games. The Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB) assigns each game submitted to it a suitability rating--ranging from "E" for "everyone" to "A" for "adult--with additional details on why the game received its rating. The list for "GTA: San Andreas" includes: "blood and gore," "intense violence," "use of drugs" and "strong sexual content."

Most retailers, including the chain stores that account for the bulk of game sales, say they restrict sales based on the ratings. A 14-year-old who wants the "Mature"-rated "GTA: San Andreas," for example, presumably would need a parent to buy it for him.

But enforcement of policies varies widely. New York City Councilman Eric Gioia said that in his own recent investigation of New York stores, he found no significant barriers to pre-teens buying M-rated games.

Adrian Fenty, a member of the Washington, D.C., City Council who recently introduced legislation that would ban the sale of violent and sexually explicit games to minors, said the game industry's current rating system doesn't go far enough.

"In a video game, you are the active participant and making decisions on who to stab, maim, burn or kill."
--Leland Yee
California State Assemblyman

"It's a rating system without any penalties," Fenty said. "It's like any other law that doesn't have any teeth--it just doesn't accomplish what it's supposed to."

The ESA's Markels said that while her organization and the ESRB continue to educate retailers on the proper application of game ratings, independent surveys show they're already about as effective as movie theater owners in preventing kids from sneaking into R-rated movies. "The last survey found enforcement was at a 66 percent level, about the same level as theater owners' enforcement," she said. "I think the fact we're up to that level in such a short period of time indicates we're taking this very seriously."

The ESA has opposed previous attempts to mandate enforcement of game ratings, getting courts to overturn laws in the state of Washington; St. Louis County, Mo.; and Indianapolis that made it illegal to sell violent games to minors. Courts in each case agreed with ESA arguments that games are constitutionally protected speech, and thus age restrictions must be limited to the type of discretionary systems used for movies, books and other media.

The Interactive Entertainment Merchants Association, a trade group representing game retailers, has consistently opposed such legislative measures as unnecessary and invalid. "The bottom line on this matter is that retailers have made the public commitment to partner with parents, and quite frankly you simply cannot legislate sound parenting," group president Hal Halpin said in a statement reacting to Yee's California bill. "We again welcome responsible parties interested in making a tangible difference on the issue to work with us, rather than pursue a legislative course proven unconstitutional time and again."

Markels likened current attempts to legislate video game restrictions to previous efforts aimed at comic books, Web sites and movies. "Every new medium has to fight to be to be protected," she said. "We're just asking for consistency. Why should a James Bond video game be treated any differently than the book or movie it's based on?"

Critics say games are, in fact, different from other forms of media. No book will require you to aim a virtual gun at somebody's head to move the plot forward.

Leland Yee, speaker pro tem of the California Assembly and author of a new bill to restrict the sale of violent games to minors, said interactivity makes games different. "Unlike movies, where you passively watch violence, in a video game you are the active participant and making decisions on who to stab, maim, burn or kill," Yee, a child psychologist, said in his statement accompanying the bill. "As a result, these games serve as learning tools that have a dramatic impact on our children."

Joanne Cantor, a communications professor at the University of Wisconsin who has conducted influential research on how media affects children, said it's well-established at this point that watching violent media desensitizes kids to real-world violence and prompts them to act more aggressively.

Cantor said games, by their nature, tend to be than passive media. "The effects are compounded because the player participates in causing the outcome, and they're directly rewarded for killing," she said. "The other thing is that with violent video games, kids typically are at it much longer than they would be with TV or a movie. Kids can get wrapped up in these for hours."

Cantor, a prominent critic of the complex rating system applied to TV programming, said the ESRB system is more comprehensible, but it's still not enough for parents whose firsthand knowledge of video games may have stopped at "Ms. PacMan."

"Most people who don't play these video games have no idea what's in them," she said. "What we need is more information for parents on what exactly is in these games. If parents knew there was an opportunity to visit a prostitute, decapitate somebody and watch the blood spurt...I think they'd feel much more strongly about not letting that in their homes."

Washington's Fenty said he's convinced games such as "Grand Theft Auto" are contributing to juvenile crime in his city. "I've talked to people who worked with at-risk youth in Washington, D.C., and they hear it directly from teenagers' mouths that they emulate these games," he said. "That's led directly to a rash of juvenile car theft in Washington. These youth spends hours and hours doing that kind of thing in a game, and then they go out and emulate it in the community."